NYT's Pentagon Propaganda: Misleading Report on Guantánamo and Terrorism

For Immediate Release

Contact: 

Steve Rendall
srendall@fair.org
Tel: 212-633-6700 x13

NYT's Pentagon Propaganda: Misleading Report on Guantánamo and Terrorism

NEW YORK - While former Vice President Dick
Cheney has been front and center in the media debate over the current
White House's national security policies, he's not the only one trying
to challenge the White House's message. The New York Times published a front-page article (5/21/09) that bolstered the notion that former Guantánamo prisoners "return" to terrorist activity.

The remarkably credulous Times
story, under the headline "1 in 7 Freed Detainees Rejoins Fight, Report
Finds," was based on a Pentagon report leaked to the paper before its
release yesterday evening. The article emphasized the notion that
former prisoners "returned to terrorism or militant activity"--without
adequately explaining the definition of either term, or examining
whether those former detainees were ever "terrorists" in the first
place.
And as Talking Points Memo has noted (5/26/09),
the Times' front-page headline claiming that "1 in 7" detainees had
returned to the fight glossed over the DOD's own distinction between
"confirmed" and "suspected" cases.

And missing from Times reporter
Elisabeth Bumiller's account was a full explanation of the Pentagon's
long history of releasing similar studies, which have been widely
challenged and debunked. Attorney H. Candace Gorman, who represents
some Guantánamo detainees, has challenged the Pentagon's findings (Huffington Post, 3/13/07), as has journalist and terrorism analyst Peter Bergen (CNN, 1/24/09). As one prominent critic, Mark Denbeaux of Seton Hall, explained (Washington Independent, 1/23/09):

Every time they have been required to identify
the parties, the DOD has been forced to retract their false IDs and
their numbers. They have included people who have never even set foot
in Guantánamo--much less were they released from there. They have
counted people as "returning to the fight" for their having written an
op-ed piece in the New York Times
and for their having appeared in a documentary exhibited at the Cannes
Film Festival. The DOD has revised and retracted their internally
conflicting definitions, criteria, and their numbers so often that they
have ceased to have any meaning--except as an effort to sway public
opinion by painting a false portrait of the supposed dangers of these
men.

The Times quoted Denbeaux deep
in its May 21 piece, but those comments failed to convey the serious
problems with the Pentagon's previous reports on Guantánamo.

More fundamentally, can the Times be sure that the Pentagon knows that the detainees were ever "terrorists" to begin with? As Denbeaux explained in one report (12/10/07 [PDF]),
"Implicit in the Government's claim that detainees have 'returned to
the battlefield' is the notion that those detainees had been on a
battlefield prior to their detention in Guantánamo." He concluded,
based on reviewing the Pentagon's own Combatant Status Review Tribunal
records, that just 4 percent of the available summaries "alleged that a
detainee had ever been on any battlefield." Only one detainee was
actually captured by U.S. forces on a battlefield. And, of course,
fighting U.S. forces on a battlefield is not in itself an act of
"terrorism."

Even Bumiller seemed to distance herself from some of the language in her piece. Appearing on MSNBC
(5/21/09), she noted that "there is some debate about whether you
should say 'returned' because some of them were perhaps not engaged in
terrorism, as we know--some of them are being held there on vague
charges." The Times went on to make significant changes to the report on its website (TPM Muckraker, 5/21/09).
The new headline is "Later Terror Link Cited for 1 in 7 Freed
Detainees," and the piece reported that the former detainees "are
engaged in terrorism or militant activity"--as opposed to "returned to
terrorism or militant activity."

Times Washington bureau chief Dean Baquet (Politico, 5/21/09) responded by arguing that the changes were not all that significant:

The story was about the estimate of the number
of people who ended up, by DOD's account, as being engaged in terrorism
or militant activity after leaving Gitmo. That still stands. The change
was an acknowledgment that some assert that not everyone in Gitmo is
truly a terrorist. Some critics have said that Gitmo is also filled
with people who aren't truly terrorists.

This is disingenuous, at the very least. The story was about people
"returning" to the "fight," based on the latest in a series of
misleading and contradictory Pentagon reports on the topic--which
should have led the Times
to treat the leak with more skepticism in the first place. The paper
noted in the article that the report's "conclusion could strengthen the
arguments of critics who have warned against the transfer or release of
any more detainees as part of President Obama's plan to shut down the
prison by January." That is precisely the effect it had (conservative MSNBC host Joe Scarborough gave the paper a "tip of the hat"--5/21/09), thanks entirely to the way the Times mishandled the story.

ACTION:

Ask New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt to examine the way the Times
handled its May 21 story about the Pentagon's claims regarding
Guantánamo detainees. Did the paper's original report do enough to
challenge the Pentagon's claims? And do the paper's subsequent changes
to the story warrant some explanation to readers?

CONTACT:

Clark Hoyt
Public Editor, New York Times

212-556-7652

public@nytimes.com

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FAIR, the national media watch group, has been offering well-documented criticism of media bias and censorship since 1986. We work to invigorate the First Amendment by advocating for greater diversity in the press and by scrutinizing media practices that marginalize public interest, minority and dissenting viewpoints.

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